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Book Review

New book 'Snow' is seriously scientific, but lighthearted

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Your shovel has been waxed.

You’ve got good boots and six bags of animal-safe sidewalk salt, so nobody’s gonna slip on any ice. There are fresh spark plugs in the snowblower, logs for the fireplace, and you’re good to go. They say it’s going to be a long winter, but with some hot cocoa and “Snow: A Scientific and Cultural Exploration” by Giles Whittell, you’ll be ready.

As a self-described lover of snow, Giles Whittell recalls the day his mother read "Little House in the Big Woods" to him, because it struck him so: They were living in Nigeria then, and the story seemed like “air conditioning in book form ...”

From that tale, sprung a fascination with cold, white stuff.

But wait. “White” isn’t really the proper way to describe snow, he says; snow is actually translucent. It’s also somewhat of a miracle that it falls at all, since it “requires a special set of circumstances” to be what it is, “as if in defiance of the cosmos.”

Another miracle: More than 300 billion trillion snowflakes fall on this planet every year, drifting down somewhere every day, all day. We should be glad for that; says Whittell, without snow, there would be no ice caps, glaciers, or water stores for drier areas. We complain about having to shovel snow, in other words, but we need it.

We need it, he says, for outdoor activities — so much so, that countries without it are happy to make it for skiing and snowboarding. We need it, even though there’s a lot we don’t know about it; we don’t know, for instance, how big a snowflake can possibly get. We need it because it can boggle the mind: It’s true that no two snowflakes are alike, for three basic reasons. We need snow for the fun, the history, and for the challenge.

And so, we live with it — to a point: some 50 million square kilometers of Earth are snow-covered, and most of that’s uninhabited. We live with it — for now, anyway: Says Whittell, by the end of this century, the world’s average snow depth is predicted to be “halved.”

If you’re someone who’s eager for the first good snow, that’s sobering, but author Giles Whittell doesn’t leave you completely discouraged. Science has hypotheses. Culture has requirements. There’s a flake or two of hope inside “Snow.”

In explaining our snowball’s chance and more, Whittell is seriously scientific, but in a more lighthearted way that isn’t intimidating. No, there’s an avalanche of information inside here, and each page invites readers to learn something new and astounding, possibly life-saving, part geeky, part charming, and part eye-opening. Readers in snow country — especially those who grumble over 10 gentle flakes — will especially delight in knowing how residents in equatorial climates deal with their lack of the white stuff.

The biggest decision you have now is this: go outside and enjoy the winter, or stay inside by the fire and read “Snow?” Either way, don’t let this book slip through your fingers.


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